March 10, 2010

Maine scores high on food for thought

— Who woulda thunk? Maine is among the top 10 states in the nation when it comes to being ''brain smart.''

That's right, fellow geniuses. The 2009 State of America's Brain Health rankings came out last week -- and Maine scored ninth among all the states and the District of Columbia when it comes to having our heads on straight.

The rankings were compiled by Martek Biosciences, a Maryland-based company that does brain research and develops products containing brain-friendly docosahexaenoic acid, DHA.

Also helping to produce the study was Dr. Michael Roizen, co-founder and chairman of the RealAge Inc. Scientific Advisory Board and (as any smart person can tell you) a frequent guest on ''Oprah.''

The goal of the state-by-state survey, according to Martek spokeswoman Cassie France-Kelly, was to highlight those places where people are being good to their brains. Conversely, as France-Kelly so tactfully put it, the survey aims to ''encourage'' those states that, shall we say, don't have all their cylinders firing.

Using 21 ''metrics'' in four categories -- diet, physical health, mental health and social well-being -- the results confirm what we in the Northeast have known all along. Five out of the six New England states scored in the Top 10 (sorry, Rhode Island), while the Bottom 10 was dominated by states like Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama and, in dead last, Louisiana.

''If you read some of the criticisms on the blogs, they're saying, 'It's obvious that there is a liberal, Northeast-elite bent to this survey,''' France-Kelly said.

Still, she noted, ''this isn't the first time (southern states) have come in last for a lot of health indicators.''

But enough region-bashing. How did Maine manage to emerge the ninth brainiest state in the union?

For starters -- no surprise here -- we came in first nationally for eating fish. Especially fatty fish like mackerel, herring, salmon and tuna -- all of which are rich in DHA omega-3 fatty acids and thus are good for the brain.

But here's another top finish you might not expect. According to statistics obtained by the brain survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards, Maine scored highest in the nation when it comes to ''game playing.''

No, we're not talking about getting all passive-aggressive with one another, although a month of rain will do that to people.

We're talking bingo, bridge, Scrabble, Texas Hold'em, you name it -- according to the brain survey, playing games not only makes us more social, it also ''teaches the brain new things.'' (Coming soon to Hollywood Slots in Bangor -- the high-stakes Intelligentsia Room!)

Also on Maine's plus side were a third-place finish in ''reading for personal interest'' (See? You're doing it right now), a fifth place in ''fruit/vegetable consumption'' and another fifth place in ''education,'' which France-Kelly said is based on measurements such as standardized test scores, per-pupil school spending and high school graduation rates.

Of course, Maine didn't fare as well in overall brain power as first-place Washington, D.C. (online readers may proceed directly to the ''comments'' section) or second-place Maryland (which, we should note again with a healthy dose of skepticism, is the home of Martek Biosciences). So where do we need to improve?

''You did really well in the social well-being category -- except for the religion part,'' France-Kelly noted.

She's talking about ''religious/spiritual activities,'' in which Maine scored a sinful 48th. Scoring first and second, respectively, in that category were Mississippi and Alabama. (If they're smart, they're praying for a boatload of mackerel and the latest edition of Monopoly.)

Maine also scored far back in the pack when it comes to deaths from Alzheimer's disease (42nd), poor mental health days (32nd) and serious psychological distress (33rd).

We also smoke too much (31st), don't breast feed quite enough (28th) and would do well to increase our DHA-fortified food and supplement sales (27th), which again, it should be noted, Martek is hard at work developing.

Finally, Maine could use a little more sleep.

But, as France-Kelly pointed out, our 34th-place ranking there didn't cost us all that much because ''the bottom line is that nobody in America is sleeping really well'' these days.

Overall, though, we all should be proud that we're making good use of that space between our ears.

In fact, while times may be tough and the weather may be bumping up our ''serious psychological stress,'' there's no reason Maine can't fire up a few more neurons and win this thing outright next year.

Just don't tell our friends from away.

They think we can't get there from here.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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